by Amy R. Levek
Chuck Kroger pulled into Telluride in 1979, ready to start another chapter in a life that was already crammed with offbeat escapades and exploration. He was scruffy from river trips and time on the road, and Telluride wasn’t much different. It still sported the dust and edginess from its mining days.
Telluride later lost much of its roughness, but Kroger never did. He had no place for changing fashion. He wore thread bare t-shirts over his wiry, athletic frame and was topped with weedy-blonde hair, a stubby multi-day beard and piercing blue eyes. He brought quiet intensity and understated humor to everything he tackled.
During college, he and his friends pioneered the sport of “buildering”: traversing a chapel ledge, climbing the Golden Gate Bridge, and arduous spelunking trips through the vents that linked Stanford’s campus buildings. He climbed more traditionally, too, and by his senior year, Kroger was the president of the Stanford Alpine Club. When he graduated in 1969 in geophysics, one of his professors remarked that Kroger spent more time climbing rocks than studying them.
By his early thirties, he was climbing his way into the record books. A quiet and unpretentious legend among late-’60s climbers, he had several first ascents in Yosemite and the Sierras and was the first climber to ratchet four big-wall routes on El Capitan in one season (1968 to 1969). Climbing took him to Alaska, the Alps, the Soviet Union, South America and eventually Colorado.
Before discovering Telluride, Kroger took a climbing trip in the Pamir Mountains of Central Asia. He and his buddies scaled three peaks in 45 days. The extreme climbing filled them with fear and loathing: They ran out of food—ate from a trash pile—and hoped for a helicopter ride. They eventually walked out—irrevocably changed. Three of the six men married within weeks of their return. Kroger was one of them.
Kroger met Kathy Green in the Grand Canyon. Green was working as a ranger, and Kroger was hiking remote canyons and basing himself out of a beat-up VW van. After a cat-and-mouse backpacking permit incident, they realized they had a lot in common. While it wasn’t love at first sight, a fondness for adventure and the outdoors brought them together. They married in Las Vegas with a makeshift honeymoon in the Grand Canyon.
Between tying the knot and other travels, the two of them found their way to Telluride in 1979. That was also the year the fledgling Telluride Ski Area, less than 10 years old, first changed hands. The mines had recently closed, and Telluride was in the throes of tremendous upheaval, with a wave of adventure-seeking young newcomers reinventing the community. Kroger and Green fit right in. But finding a place to live wasn’t easy.
The quintessential Victorians of the town’s mining heyday were showing their age, and livable houses were in short supply. Realtors recognized Kroger’s zero-down-payment capacity and steered him to a leaky-roofed house just below Tomboy Road. Like a true Telluride investor, Kroger bargained from Mexico, where he was working on a shrimpfarming operation. The real-estate deal closed a few months later, and Kroger returned to a snow-pummeled town with his three mechanically challenged cars (a Duster, Willys jeep and well-worn VW bus). With dubious shelter secured, he and Telluride started their long-term relationship.
Life for Kroger and Green was rich: They hosted a raucous mix of travelers, misfits, adventurers and anyone temporarily needing a roof (no longer leaky). Climbers on their way to Chile, guides headed to Aconcagua, and rivertrippers hoping to explore Rio Usumacienta in Guatemala cycled through their lives. Sometimes they snagged Kroger and Green, pulling them along on their adventures. These escapades were interspersed with work for Kroger, guiding in South America and working as a snowmobile mechanic for a National Science Foundation expedition in Antarctica.
When in Telluride, he was employed by construction companies during the day and worked on his own house at night. Eventually, BONE (Back of Nowhere Engineering) Construction emerged with Kroger and Green as owners and a host of employees, many of whom remain with the business today. The company’s projects are distinct for their quality. Kroger never cut any corners, sought the strongest method for longevity, and incorporated imaginative solutions with the use of steel. An inveterate tinkerer, Kroger was a self-taught welder who’d often be seen in the late-night darkness of his shop, surrounded by arcing sparks and the brilliant white glow of a welding torch. He’d experiment with the concentrated heat until he had what he wanted—maybe not what architects or engineers would spec, but always something funky or beautiful that worked well.
As an artist and craftsman, Kroger’s joyful creations were infused with his philosophy that art should move and be humorous. He found inspiration, raw material and parts at junkyards, deserted mines and auto and equipment boneyards. Kroger often donated his pieces to nonprofits throughout the region. Unique works such as “The Puker,” a fast-spinning playground installation, and “Very Sharp Chairs” prompted intense bidding wars at fundraising auctions. His philanthropy extended further: He volunteered for Habitat for Humanity and an organization called Corazon in Mexico, where he built and repaired houses for those less fortunate.
Kroger’s genius shone in his playful inventions. He crafted a line of innovative rail bicycles—conventional bikes converted to ride on railroad tracks. With friends in tow, his outlaw spirit would seek out (mostly) abandoned rail lines for stealth rides. A successful trip meant hours of cruising. Sometimes he misjudged, and rail crews confiscated a few of the custommade bikes. He converted old snowboards into a line of “butt boards.” And when the Dolores River froze, he took friends biking down its slippery course with his studded-tire version of ice bicycles.
Whether climbing a granite face or picking his way along a steep trail through the nighttime blackness of a high-altitude mountain race, Kroger moved with grace and determination. A six-time finisher of the Hardrock 100—a grueling 100-mile footrace with a 33,000- foot elevation gain—he also conquered the Get High Race, the Imogene Pass Run and other mountain competitions. He surprised spectators, because he resembled a rumpled hiker more than the tough competitor he was.
With his love for mountain trails, Kroger enlisted friends to clear new routes and build new paths (some of which were unsanctioned), such as Clay Way and McCarron Junction, or he reestablished old mining routes, such as Deer Trail, adorning them with custommade metal signs. Discovering these small plaques is like finding an old sheepherder’s inscription on an aspen tree; both remain part of Telluride’s legacy.
One of his final feats was a series of custom-crafted steel steps and handholds, modeled on a system created during World War I in the Dolomites of Italy. Kroger’s via ferrata requires climbing equipment and is installed somewhere (not to be revealed) in the mountains of Colorado.
If anyone ever epitomized the Telluride spirit, it was Kroger. He unpretentiously glided through life with gentle strength and fortitude. Like the miners before him, the mountains were as much a part of him as he was one with them. After one of his adventure-laden days—a day hike for Kroger could cover 20 miles—sitting down for dinner at home with friends, he would characteristically fall asleep while conversation drifted around him. Telluride lost part of its mystique—an inventor, artist, philanthropist, adventurer, rebel and indomitable spirit—when Kroger died on Christmas Day, 2007.